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NBC News Cites ‘Climate of Fear & Retaliation,’ Withholds Identity of Architect of CIA’s Defense for Torture

Screen shot of NBC News story on CIA officer Alfreda Frances Bikowsky

(update)

NBC News published a story on a senior CIA official who is a “top al Qaeda expert” and a “key architect of the agency’s defense of its detention” and torture program for terrorism suspects. The official apparently developed “oft-repeated talking points that misrepresented and overstated” the effectiveness of torture. And, while the female official is singled out in the Senate intelligence committee’s summary of its CIA torture report, NBC News made the decision to protect her identity.

This female expert has been tied to a pre-9/11 intelligence failure and the rendition of German citizen Khaled el-Masri. She participated in the torture of alleged 9/11 suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed while he was detained at a secret prison in Poland. She misread intelligence from another terrorism suspect and used it to “extract” an “erroneous admission” from Mohammed.

The identity of this CIA officer is already in the public domain. The identity and stories of her time spent defending and participating in torture have been reported by journalists. She even has a Wikipedia page that matches up exactly with what NBC News reporter Matthew Cole wrote about her.

Her name is Alfreda Frances Bikowsky.

That leads to the critical question: Why is NBC News protecting an overzealous torturer?

The media organization claims that they are protecting her anonymity “at the request of the CIA” because the agency cited “a climate of fear and retaliation in the wake of the release of the committee’s report.” But the notorious CIA officer is already known to the world.

NBC News investigative producer Matthew Cole additionally reports, “The expert was not identified by name in the unclassified 528-page summary of the report, but US officials who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity confirmed that her name was redacted at least three dozen times in an effort to avoid publicly identifying her.”

“In fact, much of the four-month battle between Senate Democrats and the CIA about redactions centered on protecting the identity of the woman, an analyst and later ‘deputy chief’ of the unit devoted to catching or killing Osama bin Laden, according to U.S. officials familiar with the negotiations.”

If it is true that Senate Democrats lost a battle to leave her name in the report because her role in torture was already known, that does not mean that NBC News has to or should withhold her identity from any coverage of her conduct.

The legal division of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center requested information that could rebut the inspector general’s conclusions and show torture techniques had been successful. Bikowsky responded with an email, “Let’s be foward [sic] leaning.” And, “Khalid Shaykh Muhammad’s information alone has saved at least several hundred, possibly thousands, of lives.”

This would be the key “template” for defending the torture program but it was not true at all.

Additionally, El-Masri was one of at least twenty-one people who, by the CIA’s own standards, were wrongly detained. The CIA inspector general concluded that the agency did not have sufficient evidence to render and detain him and considered the agency’s “prolonged detention of el-Masri” to be “unjustified.”

Bikowsky, the deputy chief of ALEC Station (the CIA’s unit for hunting down Osama bin Laden), advocated for el-Masri’s rendition but was not punished because CIA Director Michael Hayden believed “mistakes should ‘be expected in a business filled with uncertainty and that, when they result from performance that meets reasonable standards, CIA leadership must stand behind the officers who make them.'”

The CIA told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on October 9, 2007, “with regard to counterterrorism operations in general and the el-Masri matter in particular, the Director believes the scale tips decisively in favor of accepting mistakes that over connect the dots against those that under connect them.”

Referring to two CIA Counterterrorism Center (CTC) officers named in the inspector general’s report on el-Masri’s rendition, the CIA stated that Hayden “does not believe that…the performance of the two named CTC officers fall below a reasonable level of professionalism, skill and diligence as defined in the CIA’s Standard for Employee Accountability.”

Also, the CIA suggested there had been a “high threat environment” when el-Masri was subject to rendition, which “was essentially identical to the one in which CTC employees, including the two in question here previously had been sharply criticized for not connecting the dots prior to 9/11.”

Previously, journalists Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo reported in 2011 for Associated Press that Bikowsky was one of a number of CIA officers who had made “grave mistakes” and received promotions instead of punishment. Bikowsky had pushed for el-Masri to be rendered and kept in detention. She fought against his release even after the CIA had confirmed he had a German passport and insisted his phone could be linked to terrorists.

The inspector general’s investigation “came down hard” on Bukowsky, according to Goldman and Apuzzo. “She had been warned about the uncertainties surrounding el-Masri’s identity. There hadn’t been enough evidence for a rendition,” but she “pushed ahead.”

Importantly, “The AP agreed to the CIA’s request to refer to Frances by her middle name because her first is unusual.” (A copy of this AP story with Bikowsky’s middle name, Frances, being used to identify her, appears on NBC News’ website.)

Once her middle name appeared in a news report and once it was reported later in 2012 that she was one of the officers who inspired the character of Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, her anonymity was compromised. Journalists and the public had figured out her identity.

What does NBC News think it means when the CIA argues the media organization should not publish her name because of a “climate of fear and retaliation”?

Essentially, the CIA requested that NBC News protect Bikowsky from scrutiny from citizens who may condemn Bikowsky for her role in defending and participating in rendition and torture. They are using her work in a covert capacity in the CIA as a means to further shield her from accountability.

It is similar to March 2013, when The Washington Post reported that there was a woman who was serving as the interim director of the National Clandestine Service. She, along with former head of the Counterterrorism Center, Jose Rodriguez, apparently signed off on the destruction of torture videotapes in 2005. The Post wrote that she was still undercover and could, therefore, not be named.

This deference to the CIA is also like what happened in 2002 when The New York Times agreed to withhold the name of the country, Thailand, where a CIA secret prison was located at the request of Vice President Dick Cheney and CIA.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr. recently defended the Times’ decision, which is mentioned in the torture report:

There have been a handful of occasions when The Times has decided to hold back on publishing a given story after a compelling case had been made that immediate publication could potentially lead to a risk of life or other serious consequence,” he said. “The intention is always to publish as soon as we feel we responsibly can, as we did in this case.

But the issue was not “risk of life” but rather concern that identifying the country would hinder “the United States’ ability to recruit other countries to host secret prisons.” That is a political issue and not an issue of protecting lives from being harmed.

The CIA has already survived a Justice Department process where a special prosecutor was appointed and claimed that there was not enough evidence to pursue any prosecutions of any CIA officers, including officers involved in the deaths of detainees. President Barack Obama’s administration has, thus far, successfully protected CIA officers from lawsuits filed by torture victims by invoking “state secrets.”

The only time that CIA officers involved in rendition have been prosecuted has been in a court in Italy, which convicted 23 officers for their role in the abduction of Abu Omar. But neither of the officers are likely to ever serve a day in jail because they have long since fled Italy and the United States government would fight their extradition.

The torture report has been that rare instance where current and former CIA officers and contractors have had to defend their role in torture. Yet, media outlets like NBC News lack the fortitude to hold individuals to account when they know the names of corrupt CIA officials named in the report.

In fact, these organizations will not even use the word torture without putting it in scare quotes. That exemplifies how gutless media outlets appear to be in the face of clear cut evidence of systematic abuses by a powerful intelligence agency.

Update

At about the same time that I published this, a similar article from Glenn Greenwald and Peter Maass was published at The Intercept on NBC News and The New Yorker withholding Bikowsky’s name.

The Intercept indicated it was “naming Bikowsky over CIA objections because of her key role in misleading Congress about the agency’s use of torture, and her active participation in the torture program (including playing a direct part in the torture of at least one innocent detainee). Moreover, Bikowsky has already been publicly identified by news organizations as the CIA officer responsible for many of these acts.”

To the extent that news organizations need to run their decision to publish past CIA, this is what media organizations should decide and include in their stories on Bikowsky’s role in the torture program. However, it is my view that there was enough in the public domain about her identity prior to the torture report that journalists should be long past showing concern for protecting identity.

Plus, she is a torturer. No media outlet should be concealing the names of torturers just so they can continue to participate in covert operations and not answer for their actions.

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NBC News Cites ‘Climate of Fear & Retaliation,’ Withholds Identity of Architect of CIA’s Defense for Torture

Screen shot of NBC News story on CIA officer Alfreda Frances Bikowsky

NBC News published a story on a senior CIA official who is a “top al Qaeda expert” and a “key architect of the agency’s defense of its detention” and torture program for terrorism suspects. The official apparently developed “oft-repeated talking points that misrepresented and overstated” the effectiveness of torture. And, while the female official is singled out in the Senate intelligence committee’s summary of its CIA torture report, NBC News made the decision to protect her identity.

This female expert has been tied to a pre-9/11 intelligence failure and the rendition of German citizen Khaled el-Masri. She participated in the torture of alleged 9/11 suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed while he was detained at a secret prison in Poland. She misread intelligence from another terrorism suspect and used it to “extract” an “erroneous admission” from Mohammed.

The identity of this CIA officer is already in the public domain. The identity and stories of her time spent defending and participating in torture have been reported by journalists. She even has a Wikipedia page that matches up exactly with what NBC News reporter Matthew Cole wrote about her.

Her name is Alfreda Frances Bikowsky.

That leads to the critical question: Why is NBC News protecting an overzealous torturer?

The media organization claims that they are protecting her anonymity “at the request of the CIA” because the agency cited “a climate of fear and retaliation in the wake of the release of the committee’s report.” But the notorious CIA officer is already known to the world.

NBC News investigative producer Matthew Cole additionally reports, “The expert was not identified by name in the unclassified 528-page summary of the report, but US officials who spoke with NBC News on condition of anonymity confirmed that her name was redacted at least three dozen times in an effort to avoid publicly identifying her.”

“In fact, much of the four-month battle between Senate Democrats and the CIA about redactions centered on protecting the identity of the woman, an analyst and later ‘deputy chief’ of the unit devoted to catching or killing Osama bin Laden, according to U.S. officials familiar with the negotiations.”

If it is true that Senate Democrats lost a battle to leave her name in the report because her role in torture was already known, that does not mean that NBC News has to or should withhold her identity from any coverage of her conduct.

The legal division of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center requested information that could rebut the inspector general’s conclusions and show torture techniques had been successful. Bikowsky responded with an email, “Let’s be foward [sic] leaning.” And, “Khalid Shaykh Muhammad’s information alone has saved at least several hundred, possibly thousands, of lives.”

This would be the key “template” for defending the torture program but it was not true at all.

Additionally, El-Masri was one of at least twenty-one people who, by the CIA’s own standards, were wrongly detained. The CIA inspector general concluded that the agency did not have sufficient evidence to render and detain him and considered the agency’s “prolonged detention of el-Masri” to be “unjustified.” (more…)

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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